Noxubee County senior quarterback Armoni Clark (5) threw for 472 yards with four total touchdowns in the win. Photo by: Stan Beall/Special to The Dispatch
December 2, 2017 8:39:26 PM
OXFORD -- Rashad Eades has a future as a counselor.
First, though, the senior wide receiver likely will have at least a few more years to catch passes.
On a night when Eades had a career-high 11 receptions, his biggest contribution to the Noxubee County High School football team this season might have been the words of advice he gave to senior quarterback Armoni Clark earlier in the year.
"He had to believe," Eades said. "At one point in time, he had gotten down on himself. I had to tell him he was going to get the job and that he had to keep putting in hard work and believing."
Eades' encouragement set the stage for Clark to have the best game of his career on the state's biggest stage. Clark was 28-for-39 for a career-best 472 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 10-yard pass to Maliek Stallings with 3 minutes, 33 seconds remaining Saturday night to lift Noxubee County to a 41-35 victory against East Central in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A State title game at Ole Miss' Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The championship is the third in four years for Noxubee County (11-4), and fifth overall. The Tigers ended the season on a nine-game winning streak.
"I was just focused in on the game," said Clark, who was named player of the game. "I knew I wanted to get this gold ball at the end of the year. I just wanted to stay humble and stay focused."
Clark and the Tigers started the game-winning drive from their 17-yard line with 6 minutes, 15 seconds remaining. Facing a third-and-16 from their 11, Clark hit Rashad Eades (11 catches, 219 yards) for an 18-yard gain and a first down. Later in the drive, Clark found Ja'Qualyn Smith (four catches, 63 yards) on a 35-yard screen pass on a blitz. A pass interference call gave the Tigers a first down at the Hornets' 7. Following an incompletion and a loss of 3 yards on a running play, Noxubee County faced a decision.
Clark said the Tigers exploited quick hitters and slants all game, so they knew something like that would be open again.
"We saw their linebackers were blitzing in, so we called 'Seattle'," Clark said. "It is a swing route with the running back and a slant with the receiver. If the receiver is open, I get it to him. If the back is open, I get it to him. It is a win-win play."
Clark said he read blitz and had confidence the offensive line would pick it up. He said the Hornets tried to bring more pressure in the second half after they opened the half with three deep safeties.
Stallings did his part on the left side by gaining separation at the line of scrimmage and angling his route inside. He went low to snare the pass in a spot only he could have caught the ball. The touchdown helped erase the sting of a near-miss score on a 9-yard reception in which he stepped out of bounds before touching the pylon.
"I begged for it," Stallings said. "I told them if they got the ball in my hands I was going to make a play. I told them we were going to win the game.
"I told them I could get separation. They just had to believe in me."
Clark and Stallings opened the season in a battle for the starting quarterback job. It wasn't until the game against Meridian that Clark started to get more snaps at the position. Shorter finally opted to go with Clark as the full-time starter in a game against West Monroe (La.). Clark responded by going 25-for-37 for 393 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-26 loss.
That was the Tigers' last defeat of the season. It also marked the beginning of Clark's maturation as a quarterback. Entering the game against East Central, Clark had thrown 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions in the Tigers' winning streak.
"Our passing attack was lethal," Stallings said. "We just came out and they knew they couldn't stop our receivers. We're too explosive for them."
Noxubee County coach Tyrone Shorter praised the play of Clark throughout the season. The compliments came after a slow start in which the Tigers struggled to run the football. He said he always believed Clark could be deadly in an offense with weapons like Eades, Pruitt, Stallings, who moved to corner back and wide receiver, and Keymarcus Jackson.
"Our offense took off after that," Shorter said. "I am so happy for Armoni Clark. This is his first championship. In 2015, he was a sophomore and he didn't play. He came back out in his junior year and I am so proud of Armoni Clark and some more of our seniors that didn't get a chance to be a part of a state championship."
Noxubee County battled back after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 at halftime. A 51-yard pass from Clark to Eades appeared to give the Tigers the momentum, but the Hornets answered with a 10-play, 78 yard drive midway through the third quarter that kicked the lead up to two scores.
A 96-yard kick return by Smith jolted the Tigers and set the defense up to shut the Hornets out the rest of the way. L.C. Clemmons' 3-yard run with 1:13 to go in the third quarter set the stage for the winning score.
Eades said the Tigers had to rely on Clark and the offensive line to bring them back. He said Shorter didn't fuss and yell at halftime and told the players to believe.
Noxubee County showed it believed in Clark by putting the football in his hands to make big plays throughout the second half.
"We knew the plays coach called were going to be open," Eades said. "Coach told me I would have a breakout game if I could beat man coverage. I just want to thank my offensive coordinators (Teddy Young and John Sallis) for trusting me and giving me the ball."
That trust and belief carried Clark and the Tigers after a 2-4 start that included losses to Class 6A finalist Starkville, Class 5A finalist West Point, Class 6A South State runner-up Meridian, and Louisiana Class 5A semifinalist West Monroe (La.). Noxubee County edged Louisville 35-30 in a Class 4A, Region 4 game on Oct. 6 in Macon. The victory snapped the Tigers' three-game losing streak. Noxubee County went on to win its sixth-straight Region 4 title and extended its winning streak in region games to 30.
Victories against Amory, Yazoo City, Corinth, and Louisville in the playoffs set Noxubee County up to win its third championship in the last four years.
"When we got in the locker room, coach Shorter said we have been in this situation before," Clark said. "He believed in us and we believed in them. We just came out here and tried to do the best we could to get the win, and we came out with it."
Said Shorter, "I am so proud of this senior class and these guys. We went through a lot of adversity this year, losing coach (James) Patterson (in March). This team dedicated the season to coach Patterson. Coach Patterson believed this team was a state championship team, and we did that. I know coach Patterson is looking down on these young men and he is so proud of them."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.